Hudson County has a history of outsiders – sometimes even gadflies – emerging as powerful political insiders in one of New Jersey’s premier Democratic organizations. With Brian Stack appearing on the verge of becoming the next Hudson County Democratic Chairman, it’s important that anyone who began following New Jersey politics within the last fifteen years understand the history of how Stack got to where he is.
Stack was a young political prodigy in Union City – he attended Mayor Billy Musto’s sentencing as a teenager – but after Bob Menendez won the mayoral race in 1986, Stack was part of the out of power faction. Menendez later went to the Assembly, moved up to the State Senate, and resigned as mayor after his 1992 election to Congress.
Menendez’s successor as mayor was Bruce Walter. Menendez, Walter and attorney Donald Scarinci had all grown up together in Union City and formed a team that eventually dominated local politics. After Walter died young in 1998, Menendez backed a young Cuban American rising star, Rudy Garcia, to become the new mayor.
Stack led an unsuccessful slate of candidates to run against the Menendez protégé Garcia and lost. In 1999, Garcia had a falling out with Menendez and backed Stack for a seat on the Hudson County Board of Freeholders against a Menendez ally, incumbent Neftali Cruz. The ambitious Garcia sought to replicate Menendez’s path when he also took a seat in the State Assembly.
By 2000, Garcia had problems at home. Union City was experiencing severe financial problems and residents rebelled against his proposed tax increase.
Stack formed an alliance with Menendez and in what was clearly the political coup of the decade, knocked Garcia from power in a matter of days. With Menendez’s support, Stack was quickly elected Union City Democratic Municipal Chairman. The two agreed there would be no deals with Garcia, whom they would oust as mayor within the next few months, and from the Assembly the following year.
Much of the credit for the implementation of the coup goes to Scarinci, the hands-on tactician. Garcia had dropped him as the city attorney, but Scarinci emerged from the new alliance with extraordinary power.
Menendez already had two of the five Union City Commissioners: Rafael Fraguela and Michael Leggiero; Garcia had tried to recall Leggiero, but failed when he couldn’t convince Stack to join him. The new alliance flipped another commissioner, Tina Yandolino, from Garcia to Stack. The new majority stripped Garcia of some of his responsibilities, and removed the lone Garcia ally, Commissioner Ray Lopez, as the Public Safety Director.
On Day 2 of the coup, the new alliance took control of the Union City Board of Education. Garcia ally, Felina De Nodal was removed as board president and replaced by Carlos Perez, a longtime Menendez loyalist. They flipped firefighter Lenny Calvo, who was once a close Garcia ally, and a third member, Addie Leon.
The board quickly severed its ties with Garcia and threw out the board attorney, Bob Murray, who had been a partner at Garcia’s law firm. Instead, the new school board attorney became Herb Klitzner, a close ally of North Bergen Mayor/State Senator Nicholas Sacco – a public demonstration that Sacco was no longer aligned with Garcia. Weehawken Mayor Richard Turner and West New York Mayor/Assemblyman Albio Sires were also aboard.
Hudson County Executive Bob Jansizewski had backed Garcia in his effort replace Cruz with Stack on the freeholder board, but after the coup, he quickly signed on to the coalition. In exchange, Menendez and Stack agreed to back Janiszewski for another term as County Chairman. That left Hoboken Mayor Anthony Russo as Garcia’s sole ally in Hudson; in 2001, Menendez ally Dave Roberts beat Russo in the mayoral race.
Garcia had been planning to challenge State Sen. Bernard Kenny (D-Hoboken) in the 2001 Democratic primary, but instead was knocked off the line for Assembly. Fraguella was his replacement. Some insiders believed around that time that had Garcia remained part of the Menendez political team, he might have become Assembly Speaker after the 2001 election and not Sires.